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Are Jews a Dog People or a Cat People?

Yet another difficult internal and ancient debate that modern Jews are unlikely to resolve

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Are there “Dog Jews” and “Cat Jews”? Do Jews love their dogs and cats? Have they always loved them? If so, did they love them as pets? I shall briefly try and discuss the attitudes toward dogs and cats in ancient Jewish society, based on academic research undertaken during the last 15 years. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out I am not totally objective. I did, after all, dedicate an academic study on “Jewish” dogs to my grandchildren’s vizsla, Lupa.

For the most part, and in spite of some recent scholarly attempts at rehabilitation, dogs were held in contempt in Israelite society due to their penchant for dining on blood and carcasses (I Kings 14:11; 16:4, 21:19, 24, and 22:38). They were regarded as urban predators roaming about at night, barking and howling, in search for food (Psalms 59:7, 15), and such dogs could easily attack anybody who got too close (Psalms 22:17, 21) or bite those who foolishly tried to show them affection (Proverbs 26:17). Outside of the city there were wild dogs, busy devouring carrion and licking blood (II Kings 9:35-36; Exodus 22:30). Very few people would have wanted anything to do with them. The only hint of any positive role for the biblical dog is found in Job 30:1, which makes reference to “dogs of my flock,” perhaps indicating that in biblical times there were dogs who served as sheep dogs or herders.

The basically negative and at best ambivalent attitude of biblical Israelites was not that different from prevalent attitudes in general in the ancient Near East, which often stressed the impurity of the dog and its contemptible status. True, there were exceptions to the rule; some dogs did occasionally enjoy somewhat of a higher status, some Canaanite cults may have sanctified canines, the Hittites liked to use them in purification and healing rites, and the odd dog may actually have been kept as a pet—and if it lived in Phoenician Ashkelon might have been buried in the dog cemetery. However, these were exceptions to the generally negative stereotypes that existed in both ancient Israel and in neighboring lands.

Cats are not mentioned at all in the Bible. A figurine carving of a cat from Lachish in the Shefelah dates to c. 1700, the Middle Bronze period, but has nothing to do with Jews or Israelites in any form. The statue might have come from Egypt, and there was a good reason for that: Egypt was rich in grain and had many silos and these undoubtedly attracted mice and other vermin. The vermin attracted feral cats and later semi-domesticated ones who feasted on mice and vermin as well as on deadly snakes that were also found in Egypt. The cats were so successful that the Egyptians began to see them as embodiments of divine power. But none of this had any influence on the Jews, even though the land of Israel was under Egyptian rule for a good period of the time. If there were cats in ancient biblical Israel serving as mousers, we do not have any proof of their existence.

As we have just seen, Jewish or so far Israelite attitudes to dogs or cats were not divorced from their surroundings, especially during the Second Temple and Mishnah and Talmud period times. Greeks, Romans, and Persians loved dogs. Dogs were functional: They served as hunting dogs, sheep dogs, and guard dogs. Dogs could pull carts, and there were even performing dogs. Some dogs were said to be able to heal with a lick of their tongues. They were popular pets and companions for men and women of all ages: A “boy and his dog” and even a “girl and her dog” were quite common, and many women had a small lap dog as a pet. In Persia, dogs did all of the above-mentioned tasks and were popular, but they were also revered, taking on the status given to cats in Egypt—in part because the Persians mistakenly identified the spiny hedgehog as a dog, and this animal was instrumental in ridding houses of poisonous snakes.

Cats were a lot less popular, although as mousers and enemies of vermin they fulfilled an important function. Yet keeping them as pets indoors or even in the barnyard could be problematic since, in addition to mice, they had a tendency to attack or eat other pets in the home or chickens or fowl in the barnyard. Not only were they not “guard” animals like dogs, but it was often necessary to guard against their feral nature, even when supposedly domesticated: They were necessary but not loved. In Persia, though, they were khrafstra, noxious creatures, the same as the mice and the rats that they ate.

Did any of this influence Jewish attitudes? As we shall see, it was hard for the Jews to shake off negative attitudes about the dog common in the biblical period, while the lack of reference to the cat in biblical times might possibly imply a greater level of ambivalence. Jewish attitudes were functional, and the basic ambivalence remained, more so in the case of cats than of dogs. There might have been good dogs and bad dogs, but cats at best were merely suffered.

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Jewish tradition in Second Temple and Mishnah and Talmud period times was well aware of the important functions of the dog as herding and a guard animal, and these were generally described in a positive manner, even though guard dogs by nature were supposed to be aggressive, and herders could be rather “pushy.” Some rabbinic sages therefore preferred to limit the use of guard dogs to cases of real potential danger such as border towns (Tosefta Bava Kama 8:17). Some sages could not rid themselves of an animus toward canines and could not be convinced that the functions dogs might fulfill were important; they even compared the raising of dogs “to one who raises pigs” (ibid.), anathema in ancient Jewish society.

Talmudic literature describes the tasks of sheep dogs and herding dogs in great detail. They protected the flocks, fighting against wolves who would steal or kill sheep (Sifrei Numbers #157), and they protected their masters, saving their lives sometimes even at the cost of their own (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:7, 46a). Rabbinic literature even mentions “the dog’s tombstone,” a monument erected in memory of such a heroic dog (Peskikta de-Rav Kahana, Vayehi Beshalah 1). Guard dogs, in official capacity or not, could offer great service to their masters, as in the case of the dog that protected the wife of a sage (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:7, 46a). It is not surprising then that the rabbis mandated that “working” dogs receive proper care and diet (Mishnah Hallah 1:8; Tosefta Hallah 1:7).

Were “Jewish” dogs pets, household or otherwise? There is little indication that they became household pets as was common in Roman society, although the emotional bonds that might have been forged between dog (usually sheep dogs or guard dogs) and master might have turned the dog into a quasi-pet, albeit one that would have been kept outside in the courtyard, not indoors. The Second Temple period book of Tobit in the Apocrypha tells of Tobit sending his son Tobias on a long trip to Media, and his dog goes with him and returns with him (6:2, 11:4). Was this dog a pet, or did he accompany his master specifically to protect him against the dangerous great fish or crocodile depicted in the book? Whether the dog was a pet or a companion, this book of the biblical Apocrypha does portray the dog in a much more positive light than was common in the earlier biblical period.

Although the attitude to dogs in rabbinical Jewish society might have become somewhat more positive than that in biblical times, the rabbis never forgot that a dog was after all still a dog and that even trusted and loyal ones could cause damage (Mishnah Bava Kama 2:3) or become dangerous and attack. Wild dogs, some rabid (Mishnah Yoma8:6), bloodthirsty (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zekhor 8), and lustful (Bavli Sanhedrin 108b) continued to roam through the streets of towns and villages; such animals might attack livestock (Tosefta Hullin 3[4]:19) or even children (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zekhor, MS Safed).

If there was any ill feeling toward dogs, though, it was not usually directed against wild dogs, but against those who raised them and those who did not properly supervise them. Precautions had to be taken, such as chaining guard dogs who were, after all, supposed to be vicious (Mishnah Bava Kama 7:7). Accidents happened: A domestic dog caused a woman to miscarry a fetus whose birth would have completed the number of souls necessary in Israel for the Divine Presence to rest upon it (Bavli Bava Kama 83a). Another time a barking dog caused a woman to miscarry; unfortunately for her the attempts of its master to calm her by telling her that the dog had its teeth removed came too late (ibid).

The dog’s characteristics were used as symbols, and even if the attitude to dogs had improved the symbols were usually negative. The image of the hungry dog describes a ravenous hunger that could drive one mad (Josephus, War 6.196). Eating in a marketplace was acting like a dog (Bavli Kiddushin 40b). Unruly women and wives were compared to dogs (Sirach 26:25). The rabbis lament that after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple “the face of this generation is as the face of a dog” (Mishnah Sotah 9:15), a comparison that was clearly not intended as a compliment. All in all, in ancient Jewish society the dog might have been a dependable “friend” and a functional “friend,” but it was still a dog and acted like one.

As we saw above, except for Egypt, cats were less popular than dogs most everywhere, whether in the Graeco-Roman world or in the Persian world in which they were reviled. This was certainly true also for the ancient Jewish world.

Ironically, it was the very contribution of the cat to society that made it so unpopular. A Talmudic tradition in Bavli Horayot 13a-b tells of students who asked their master Rabbi Eliezer why dogs recognize God (!) and cats do not; dogs are believers, cats seem to be atheists, but not on principle or because they are intelligent. The answer boiled down to the fact that cats eat mice and rats, and eating these vermin causes, for some reason, forgetfulness: Cats could not even remember to believe in God. It would be a long time before anybody figured out that, by eating vermin, cats also rid the world of the infected fleas that lived on them and caused disease and decimating plague.

It was not that this service was totally unappreciated. Because cats rid houses of vermin, it was permissible to raise them and even sell them to non-Jews, something that was not normally allowed in the case of dangerous animals (Tosefta Bava Kama 8:17). House vermin were apparently a serious problem in Babylonia or Persia. Non-Jews dealt with it by bringing the spiny hedgehog into their homes, thinking it was a dog: The rabbis also seemed to think so (Kufri dog), but not being limited by the constraints of Zoroastrianism and its anti-cat teachings, they logically thought that it was better to bring a cat into one’s house than the dangerously non-domesticated and not overly friendly spiny hedgehog. Thus, the Jews in Babylonia, not having to deal there with religious restrictions regarding cats, but just with the general animus against cats, brought them into their homes, apparently not as pets, but as mousers.

Jews who did not have cats might even borrow one from a neighbor. It was not unheard of for a mouser to be killed “in the line of duty” by hearty vermin or for a cat to die through overindulgence in their feasts of vermin (Bavli Bava Mezia 97a). Jews in Babylonia also brought cats into their homes to attack and eat poisonous snakes.

It seems that part of the problem regarding cats was that they did not make do with eating vermin but tended to supplement their diets with domestic fowl or other small domestic animals. It was assumed that cats would attack other household animals, and steps had to be taken to prevent this (Mekhilta Mishpatim 16). If one left a henhouse unattended for any period of time, it was considered a “miracle” if the hens were found still alive (Yerushalmi Peah 3:7; 17d). Hens were safe nowhere, and a hungry cat might even try to break down or claw its way into the door of a room into which a frightened hen had fled (Bavli Hullin 52b). An even greater irony was that if a domestic animal was found clawed or attacked, the rabbis realized that dogs were more prone to violence and that the culprit was probably a dog (Bavli Hullin 53b), but they just disliked cats more.

More extreme anti-cat attitudes remained prominent in certain Jewish circles as well. Three Babylonian Talmudic-period rabbis, Rav, Samuel, and Rav Assi, were invited to a circumcision. Before it could take place, however, a cat—wild? stray? renegade house mouser?—attacked the infant and tore off its arm. Rav was so upset that he stated that all cats should be killed (Bavli Bava Kama 801-b). A Byzantine period midrash listed cats among animals that are of no benefit to mankind at all and either bite, sting, or wound their masters.

Not all rabbinic authorities concurred with the prejudices of their colleagues against cats. Some medieval Talmudic commentators were so upset by the anti-cat feelings of Talmud times that they pointed out that their cats were nicer (R. Solomon b. Aderet cited in Tur Yoreh deah #57). The third century C.E. Tiberian Rabbi Johanan stated that if the Torah had not been given, modesty could have been learned from cats. Unfortunately Rabbi Johanan did not elaborate or explain. The 11th-century French commentator Rashi attributed this to the fact that cats cover their droppings, which is apparently quite true; in this sense they are quite modest. The 11th-century North African commentator Rabbi Hananel ben Hushiel claimed that cats are modest because they do not copulate in public places, which is apparently not true at all. The classical world vividly documented, for whatever reasons, the active and often public sex lives of cats. Perhaps Rabbi Johanan just meant to say that cats remained modest in spite of their prowess as hunters. Perhaps, for some reason, he just liked cats.

Would anybody actually have kept a cat as a pet? One tradition in Bavli Shabbat 51b does mention a cord or leash of a cat that allowed the cat to be taken outside the house on the Shabbat while wearing this cord or leash. One would hardly put such a leash on a semi-wild violence-prone mouser. Could this single reference hint at the possibility of having a cat as a pet? Perhaps.

What seems clear is that the Jewish attitude toward both dog and cat is ambivalent. A basically negative attitude to dogs in biblical times underwent some rehabilitation after changes in the non-Jewish world helped the dog become popular due to their increased use and functionality, though Jews were not enamored with their dogs and never forgot that there could be both good dogs and bad dogs: The good dog was treated well and respected and perhaps even occasionally loved. The relationship to the cat was almost entirely functional. Few people liked them, even if they liked vermin less.

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Are Jews a Dog People or a Cat People?

Yet another difficult internal and ancient debate that modern Jews are unlikely to resolve